I came to the Review-Journal at the end of one era of Las Vegas entertainment. Now it feels like I’m slipping out at the end of another.
Maybe I just don’t like to leave a party that’s still raging. But I’m giving up this column and full-time work for the newspaper. And while the show scene I cover isn’t really one of the reasons for doing this right now, it does seem easier to leave during this lull on the Strip, when concert headliners are replacing investment in original shows.
Does anyone really feel like another “Ka” is in the pipeline? I’ve been battling repetition, though I hope it hasn’t shown up too much in the writing. There’s full-circle pride in having covered Celine Dion’s opening night in 2003, her closing night four years later, and her return in 2011.
But if I’m going to try some creative writing and things I’ve been talking about for years (including a February 2016 podcast of ‘Matt & Mattingly’s Ice Cream Social’)? The little voice is saying, “Run, before she closes again!”
The first column with my face on it, announcing I would follow my friend Michael Paskevich, ran this same month in 2000. Part of it addressed the pending destruction of the old Circus Maximus showroom at Caesars Palace.
At least I got here in time to close the book on the old Vegas, and even to write a book, “Cult Vegas,” about it. I rolled into town on the same day in October 1987 that Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. last stood on the same Las Vegas stage together.
A flat tire intervened somewhere around Mesquite, I wasn’t actually on the job yet (just apartment hunting), and anyway, I was the young guy hired to cover rock concerts, not the old Vegas cats. So I missed Sinatra’s old pals surprising him.
But the old Vegas reeled me in anyway. I later got to shake Davis’ hand, and to better know Sam Butera, Claude Trenier, Marty Allen and other workaday heroes of the classic-Vegas era. Blackie Hunt and Sonny King came to my book release party, and I’ll never forget Robert Goulet calling my mom to get the answer to a crossword puzzle clue. Neither would she.
Still, “Cult Vegas” was mostly research and interview recollections. My real-time experience was the Cirque du Soleil era and the reinvention of the Strip.
I covered the opening night of The Mirage and would later venture into the tent that sprung up behind it to meet the Cirque du Soleil folk bringing us “Nouvelle Experience.”
“A lot of people are going to be very surprised that Cirque is going to do so well here,” then-Mirage (now MGM Resorts) executive Alan Feldman said in that 1992 story. To assume Cirque was too artsy for Vegas “suggests that people can’t get enough of the old Vegas stuff. If all those shows were doing turn-away business every night, that might be true.”
I chronicled every Cirque show since. But now, doesn’t it seem like Cirque is the “old stuff” and we’re waiting for some new tent full of fresh imagination to pop up somewhere in town?
Throughout this era, I always tried to write credible show reviews and to delve into the business behind the shows. If a mediocre one endures, perhaps it has more to do with the mechanics of ticket discounting. If a Broadway musical didn’t perform, maybe it wasn’t that a “Vegas audience” didn’t get it, but that it toured too much before landing here.
Everyone’s a critic now when it comes to an internet jammed with consumer opinion. But believe it or not, Paskevich was the first Review-Journal staffer to write objective show reviews. (The town was just too small, and those who say it was better when the mob ran it didn’t labor under the threat of someone digging a hole for them in the desert.)
As the second one, I hope I prodded local producers to push forward and aim higher, even if it was sometimes awkward to do both reviews and news columns about the same people. But I needed material, they needed the ink, and with very few exceptions, we all got along.
The Strip seems to have moved beyond loopy self-parodies such as “Nebulae — The Life Force,” and I kind of miss those days. But my snark level toned down over the years as I got to know the people involved, how hard they worked, and how many ways something can go off the rails.
While Las Vegas was just another stop for concert tours, reviewing the unique-to-Vegas shows “seems to be more appreciated by consumers, who likely respect a little straight talk on these pricey attractions,” I wrote in that first 2000 column.
All these years later, I hope you did.